The Federal Communications Commission is poised to make a directive on 5G, the next-generation, high-speed wireless standard, that could significantly affect local government control of infrastructure. Two cities, San Jose, Calif., which lies in the heart of Silicon Valley, and Lincoln, Neb., an innovative university and capitol city, both could be profoundly affected if the FCC decides to “cut red tape” with modifications to small cell antenna deployment rules.

On March 22, the FCC will meet to eliminate unnecessary regulations to “provide better broadband, connect underserved areas and create jobs,” according to FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr. This move by the federal agency is supposed to save Americans $1.56 billion and create more than 17,000 jobs, according to industry statistics.   “Our infrastructure rules were written for the hundred-foot 3G and 4G towers, not backpack-sized 5G deployments,” said Carr in a speech at the Consumer Technology Association in February. “It’s the regulatory equivalent of requiring a commercial pilot license to fly a paper airplane. The result? Small cell deployments cost too much, and the regulatory approval process takes too long. Left unchecked, this will be the bottleneck that prevents us from leading the world in 5G — that prevents the investments, innovation, and jobs associated with 5G from being realized here in the U.S.”   But local officials argue the regulatory process serves an important purpose. “By removing the historic and environmental review, and taking away local control, it won’t allow cities to make sure that 5G is deployed in an equitable manner for citizens,” said Shireen Santosham, the chief innovation officer for the city of San Jose.   San Jose is the tenth largest city in the U.S., the largest in Silicon Valley and has a median income that is over $90,000, but has approximately 9.5 percent of the city’s 1 million residents living below the poverty line. “Currently there are more than 100,000 people in our city who do not have broadband,” she said.    “Small (5G) cells will not solve the digital divide; we need to know that there will be service to rural and low-income areas,” she said.    Santosham sees the FCC moves as a cynical way of taking away local control of the infrastructure deployment while promising to cover those who do not already have connectivity. “It is important that we have the conversation about those people who are not already wired and do not have access at home,” she said. “We need a holistic conversation on digital access for all Americans.”   The city currently has a partnership with Facebook called Terragraph, which will bring free gigabit-speed Internet to the city’s downtown public sometime this year. “This year, we launched an effort to bring autonomous vehicles to San Jose — our initial call for proposals garnered 30 submissions from leading companies around the world. We are currently evaluating a short list of companies,” she said. This technology will require 5G capability as well.   David Young, fiber infrastructure and right of way manager for the city of Lincoln (pop 277,346 and home of the state’s largest university), has a similar view of the FCC’s directive. The city began its journey to 5G coverage in 2012 when Mayor Chris Beutler invested $700,000 in a conduit system for fiber optics that has since grown to over 300 miles. Because the state has banned local governments from offering municipal services such as electricity or telecommunications, Lincoln has worked hard to put together some very innovative ideas to attract private-sector investment.   “The plan is to make our process fast, easy to understand and repeatable to attract investment,” he said. They have been so successful the city has managed to partner with 12 private-sector companies to keep them connected.     Early in the process, Young began working with Valmont Industries, a city pole designer, to construct a functional pole that would make it easy for private companies to deploy 5G hardware. “They developed a pole that will deploy for 95 percent of their users (in other towns),” he said. The city also developed a master license agreement with the manufacturer. “It was important to get in on the ground floor with the pole company to set a standard for 5G infrastructure throughout the city,” he said.   In the Internet service provider (ISP) industry, time is valuable. “If you can shrink time for the carrier, it helps the city’s partnerships,” said Young. The design process also saved the city money. “The poles cost us nothing, except my salary,” he said. “The manufacturer is selling our design to other cities.” Lincoln has a licensing agreement for 100 poles downtown and expects to install 400 in the next few years.   While this is only part of the enterprising development Young has made, he says all of this will be for naught if the FCC rules bypass city control. “If the FCC takes away control and assets bought by the local taxpayers,” he said, “it will be very challenging.”   Young said the city has worked very hard to streamline services for wireless providers. “We are business friendly. We have a 10-day permitting process,” he said. All standards are already online, and if the FCC rules to take away local control, it would cause deployment of the infrastructure to stop. The city has worked 100 percent with private partners in its infrastructure build-out. “Why are we not at the table with the FCC?” he asked.   Like Lincoln, San Jose has embraced 5G and what it will allow the public to do in the future. “Ushering in a gigabit future will no doubt have wide-ranging benefits — from enabling new advances like connected and autonomous vehicles, unlocking augmented and virtual reality and creating other new markets,” Santosham said.   But, two critical issues need addressing. The technology is in its infancy, and how it will be deployed matters to citizens. “We still will need to see proof points around the technology,” she said. “While it delivers lightning fast speed in labs and early trials, there are real-world problems of scale still to overcome.”   Making drastic changes to how a city historically manages its public rights-of-way to accommodate one, yet unproven technology may not be a smart move, according to Santosham. “A piecemeal approach where service providers can pick and choose where they service a city also has another unintended consequence,” she said. “It results in the wealthier, denser and more profitable areas getting service first, and more traditionally digitally excluded neighborhoods serviced last if they have services at all.”   If city government is not going to be allowed to control, permit and charge fees for access to the public right of way, this will also take away the ability to incentivize companies to build out into low-income or marginalized areas, argues Santosham.   “Most of the legislation today is unfortunately too one-sided with the industry asking for the benefits of a public utility without the obligations,” she said. “Aesthetic concerns matter to local communities and bills that are overly permissive in equipment size and scale are shortsighted. No community will want thousands of refrigerator-sized equipment placed throughout their city with no say in the process.”   Finally, private companies will not act on, nor know the communities’ interest, according to Santosham. “No one company or industry will act in the overall interest of the community in the way a local government can act — and rightfully so. Companies are incentivized to maximize shareholder value, not public value.”